16 March 2005 Edition

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Bearing witness to criminalisation - By Eoin O'Broin

A solidarity picket in Belfast, just one of many across Ireland and Europe last Saturday

A solidarity picket in Belfast, just one of many across Ireland and Europe last Saturday

On Friday 10 March, I travelled to Madrid to testify for the defence in what must be one of Europe's most controversial legal trials. Known as the Macro Sumario 18-98, the legal case is part on a long running attempt by the Spanish Government and judiciary to criminalise Basque political, social, youth, language and business organisations. The case also includes indictments against two newspapers, a magazine and a number of journalists.

The legal process began in 1997 with the closure of Egin newspaper. In the eight years that have since passed, the Basque language newspaper Egunkaria, the investigative magazine Ardi Beltza, the political parties Herri Batasuna and Batasuna, the social organisation Gestoras pro Amnistia, and the youth organisations Jarrai, Haika and Segi have all been declared illegal and their key organisers and directors have been jailed. More than 90 people have been accused of belonging, in different ways, to the support structure of ETA.

In March 2001, Judge Baltazar Garzon issued arrest warrants against 15 young people involved in the national executive of Haika. A year later, a further 12 young people were arrested from the national executive of Segi. Since then, the number of young people implicated in the case has reached around 40.

The main charges against the youth activists are "being integrated within the organisation of ETA" as well as 46 other charges "including terrorism".

Those of us who know the individuals and organisations involved have always viewed these charges as absurd. Jarrai, Haika and Segi are youth organisations committed to a clear set of political demands. While they are not the same organisation and with each development the detail and membership of the groups expanded, they nonetheless share a continuity of political aspiration, namely independence and socialism.

Equally, they are open, transparent and very much public organisations that do all of the things that political groups do. They run campaigns, hold press conferences, stage demonstrations and cultural and political festivals. Their spokespersons are well known to the public. None of this is consistent with the prosecutor's charge that the youth activists operate in a semi-clandestine way, promoting violence and recruiting people into ETA.

At the start of February, after unexplained delays by the State Prosecutor, the formal legal proceedings began. In light of the absurdity of the charges, it was hardly surprising that the only evidence offered by the prosecutor were police witnesses or statements from young people secured under torture.

For the defence, a large number of witnesses were called from the youth organisations and other political groups who testified that Jarrai, Haika and Segi were independent youth organisations, responsible for their own organisational, political and financial affairs.

The lawyers for the prosecution were particularly interested in the involvement of the youth organisations in a group called KAS. KAS (left nationalist coordinator) was a forum bringing together the different political elements of the Basque pro-independence left. The youth organisations' involvement in KAS was on the basis of their input as groups representing young people, offering a youth perspective on the broader political issues of the day.

I arrived into the National Court on the Friday morning, called as a witness for the defence. Ostensibly, the basis of my evidence was as a Sinn Féin activist who for eight years has worked with the individuals and youth organisations on trial, and as an author of a book on radical Basque youth movements.

Friday was also the first anniversary of the Atocha train bombings, in which almost 200 people were killed in Madrid in 2004. The morning broke with a coordinated chiming of church bells at 7am, followed by a musical lament broadcast throughout the centre of the city. At noon, a five-minute silence was observed in memory of those who lost their lives.

The solemnity of the day was broken only by a dispute between the families of those killed in the bombings, who refused to attend the official ceremonies, criticising the government and the opposition Popular Party of trying to politically manipulate their grief in pursuing political agendas. The families were referring to a major EU-wide conference on 'anti-terrorism' that was being hosted in Madrid during the anniversary.

Before arriving at the National Court, I had an image of a very elaborate courtroom filled with formality and legal pomp. The reality was very different. The courtroom was small and cramped, filled with boxes of files. Judges were permitted to smoke during the intermittent short breaks, which only added to the ramshackle and shady nature of the entire affair. One of the judges slept during much of the trial that day.

In the public gallery, witnesses and family and friends of the accused mixed with members of the Association of Victims of Terrorism, who wore tshirts calling for a guilty verdict. A tense détente prevailed as each group kept their diplomatic distance.

I was the first witness of the day. Half an hour responding to questions from the defence lawyers. It was difficult to know if the judges were paying any attention. The odd note was taken, accompanied by raised eyebrows or concerned expressions. Did I ever see the young people promoting violence or recruiting people into ETA? Did I every see any incitement to violence or promotion of rioting? In my opinion, were the young activists or organisations controlled or manipulated by other organisations, such as ETA?

Of course, the answer to all of these questions was No. Indeed, one of the most striking things about the three Basque youth organisations is the degree of autonomy, self-organisation and independence they have achieved. While they clearly share a common ideological programme with Batasuna and other pro-independence leftwing organisations throughout the Basque Country, there is little doubt that they are their own masters. Indeed, many of their European counterparts, including Ógra Shinn Féin, have been envious of the degree of independence achieved.

All of the witnesses of Friday made similar points and argued against the accusations of the state prosecutor. Whether the judges, those that were awake, listened or accepted any of the arguments is another question. The trial of the youth activists is set to continue throughout March, with a possible verdict before the summer. The prosecution is asking for 14-year sentences for all of the accused.

While the accusations may be absurd, the consequences of what can only be described as a political show trial are deeply serious.


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